Category Archives: contemporary opera

Opera Phila’s ‘Cold Mountain’ a Scorching Success

Operatoonity.com review: presented by Opera Philadelphia (the sixth opera in their American Repertoire Program)
Live performance: Sunday, February 14, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music: Jennifer Higdon
Libretto: Gene Scheer
5.0 out of 5.0 stars

five stars

 

 

Opera Phila's five-star production of "Cold Mountain"

Opera Phila’s five-star production of COLD MOUNTAIN

I am the luckiest reviewer in the world. I was privileged to experience an incredibly beautiful and poignant production of COLD MOUNTAIN, a new contemporary opera presented by Opera Philadelphia this past Valentine’s Day. How fitting. I left my heart in the Academy of Music that afternoon with tears staining my cheeks and my unabashed affection for this Pennsylvania company filling me with pride on my ride home to Lancaster.

Wait a minute. Aren’t critics supposed to criticize? The more critical it is, the better the review, right? My mission with Opera Philadelphia is different from many reviewers’, as I see it. It’s not to show how learned and accomplished I am. It’s not to display my facility with language. My task here is to use this digital bully pulpit to share with the world, and I do mean the world thanks to the Internet, the extraordinary arts opportunities Opera Philadelphia is bringing to the East Coast of the United States.

Full disclosure: I adore Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program. I’ve seen every production since they launched this initiative in 2011, beginning with DARK SISTERS, simply an excellent chamber opera. The American Repertoire Program points to the future of opera in America–contemporary, original operas not simply silly regietheater representations of classic operas that some companies trot out for audiences.

COLD MOUNTAIN was spectacular. And my expectations were sky-high. Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain is my favorite contemporary book. I snuffled and wept through an entire box of tissues devouring it. When Opera Philadelphia announced this production, I almost couldn’t wait for February. And who among us looks forward to February? Opera Phila offered a singularly rewarding opera experience. So good that I had to find new five-star art to post for this show.

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Jarrett Ott as Inman and Isabel Leonard as Ada in COLD MOUNTAIN

The stage was set was fully visible upon entering the theatre–ramshackle boards in such disarray I immediately conjured media images of the World Trade Center after 9-11. Foreboding, devastation, and senseless loss crept into this  viewer’s soul before the orchestra has struck a single note of Jennifer Higdon’s extraordinary work.

Higdon tackled a novel of depth and scope and successfully translated it into a contemporary opera. I was fortunate to receive a copy of the education program that Opera Phila shares with school students and reading it brought Higdon’s score alive anew. I was reminded of all the distinctive elements in her score to evoke time and place–fiddle music, knee-slapping percussionists, the sounds of twinkling stars made with knitting needles, and strains of mountain music throughout. The opera opens with the sinister leader of the Home Guard singing a folk tune from the era, and the effect was chilling.

Because I am such a fan of the novel, high expectations loomed for Gene Scheer’s libretto, too. The language Scheer put to the aria Metal Age will rip out your spleen:

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“Thousands and thousands in bright blue, shiny, factory made uniforms. We shot them and loaded. Shot them and loaded. For five hours, thousands and thousands of men…and there in the middle of it, a drummer boy crying, bleeding, dying…He shot me in the neck. The metal age has come.”
–Inman’s aria “The Metal Age.”

If you don’t know the story, it’s nearly a contemporary telling of Homer’s Odyssey with a little Les Miserables thrown in for more an extra heaping helping of pathos. W.P. Inman (Odysseus) is a Civil War deserter struggling to return home to Cold Mountain see Ada Monroe (Penelope), the remembrance of whom is the only thing keeping him alive despite severe privation and dogged persecution by Teague (Javert), the leader of the crew hunting down deserters like stray dogs.

As Inman, baritone Jarrett Ott, who stepped in for Nathan Gunn, effected the most thoroughly broken man without the affect of melodrama. Since I admit to having fangirled Gunn in previous reviews, I thought I’d  be disappointed with Ott, but was very happily surprised with his interpretation. He fully inhabited Inman’s character while singing the role with power and polish.

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Jarrett Ott as W.P. Inman

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was luminous as Ada. She is the consummate performer–a star in every aspect. Beautiful to hear and see, she made her Opera Phila debut in this show. I predict Philadelphia was treated to a performance of one whose star will quickly rise even higher very soon. Brava, Miss Leonard.  You were grace, elegance, talent, and depth personified in this production. Would she have shone so brightly opposite Gunn? One hardly cared after a point.

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W.P. Inman ( Jarrett Ott) recalls a happier time with Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard) before the Civil War.

Ruby Thewes, Ada’s friend and partner, is a delicious role in the novel but a difficult one to score and to sing. Ruby is as down-home and prickly as Ada is refined and noble. Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall did a serviceable job in the role. Ruby’s character can be likened to nails scraping a chalkboard. While grit makes for an interesting spoken role, it can be overwhelming for a performer to convey in song and for the audience to hear. By necessity, Ruby lost some of pluck going from the page to a musical score, which is the show’s only real shortcoming.

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Ruby (Cecelia Hall) encounters her estranged father Stobrod Thewes (Kevin Burdette), who has also deserted the war

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris’ star power crackled as the evil leader of the Home Guard Teague, the Javert-inspired character. Yes, in this opera, the tenor is the bad guy, and the the baritone gets the girl. Hunter Morris was so masterfully evil, so convincing as the consummate Confederate baddie that he was soundly booed at curtain call. I smiled inwardly remembering this “baddie”performing a darling lullaby in cabaret at the Glimmerglass Festival’s Gentleman’s Night Out only a summer ago, accompanying himself on his guitar. He was the picture of haunting perfection in this production.

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Teague ( Jay Hunter Morris) uses Javert-like tactics in hunting down Confederate deserters.

I am such a fan of bass Kevin Burdette, who is a chameleon of a performer and an extraordinary opera singer (and I don’t really like basses–truth be told.) I have seen him be hilarious and also gut-wrenchingly despicable, depending on the role. I wanted his part to be larger as Ruby’s father Stobrod. But the opera is the proper length at two and a half hours with one intermission, so that is merely self-indulgent desire on my part.

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Stobrod Thewes (Kevin Burdette) and Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard)

This tale of Inman–a quiet, private hero who has witnessed a depth of brutality no decent person should ever experience, who is redeemed only by Ada’s love–was a heroic effort for which all involved deserve highest praise. The orchestra under Corrado Rovaris,  the sweeping direction of Leonard Foglia, the ingenious completely functional dysfunctional set design by Robert Brill, lighting design by Brian Nason, and, of course, all the talented performers in the Opera Philadelphia Chorus turning in stunning cameos also made this production the shimmering, albeit soul-scorching, production it was.

I am deeply grateful for your artistic endeavors, Opera Philadelphia. I tried to choke back my tears during curtain call but they would not stop. The City of Brotherly Love has a treasure in this company.

A special Operatoonity.com shout-out to my press contact Frank Luzi, always a pleasure to work with, whose children were darling in the show.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, contemporary opera, favorites, Live opera performance, Modern opera, North American Opera, opera and fiction, opera firsts, opera milestones, PA, Premieres, Regional opera

The Importance of Opera Philadelphia: ‘Oscar’ Review

Operatoonity.com review: Oscar presented by Opera Philadelphia; a co-commission and co-production with The Sante Fe Opera
Live performance: Sunday, February 15, 2015
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Theodore Morrison
Text: John Cox and Theodore Morrison
Photos: Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

4.0 stars

And the Oscar goes to . . . Opera Philadelphia!

It may be Oscar Weekend across the globe, but for the last two weekends, Opera Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love’s preeminent opera company, deserves an Oscar for offering the East Coast premiere of a new American opera of the same name, co-commissioned and co-produced with The Sante Fe Opera.

Oscar’s production values were exquisite. Philadelphia audiences were treated to a world-class performance by arguably the world’s most outstanding and in-demand countertenor David Daniels. But most importantly, a new American production was ushered into the repertoire–one with heft, musical beauty, and promise for a fresh new future for opera, one that isn’t reliant on tasteless regietheatre-style regurgitations of classic operas or endless reproductions of La Traviata.

Countertenor David Daniels played the title role of Oscar Wilde in a role written for him. Photo | Opera Philadelphia.

As a new production, as new productions are wont to be, the show itself had some imperfections, which is why I gave it four stars. While it was a noble choice to paint Wilde as a tragic hero, the parts of Wilde’s life highlighted in Oscar combine to recreate a sort of grim limbo.  From time immemorial, “new” productions have been refined or reworked based on audience and or critics’ reactions. While Theodore Morrison’s music was resonantly and refreshingly melodic, the overall tone of the show itself needed a little polishing and more seamless integration, as if Morrison and Cox couldn’t decide what kind of show it was supposed to be. Oscar is alternately a despairing commentary on insufferably rigid Victorian mores and occasionally broadly satirical while very rarely bright. Agreed, dehumanization and imprisonment of human beings because of their sexual preferences aren’t the stuff of uplifting subject matter.

While Oscar effectively showcased the stain of intolerance on humanity, it rarely conveyed Wilde’s bright and often biting wit. Wilde himself used humor to lampoon societal values during Queen Victoria’s time. Yet, there are only glimmers of his comedic genius in the libretto, lines such as, “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.” The broad satire of Wilde’s trial to close Act I was nothing short of a tour de force:

The satirical representation of Wilde’s trial for indecency was a stellar scene in Oscar but also sadly creepy. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

However, irony might have also served this production. Generations of theatregoers derived intense pleasure and entertainment from a beloved playwright’s public genius but reveled in the condemnation of the same man’s private proclivities.  With such an unrelentingly dark treatment, more brightness would have made the dark scenes that more impactful. One broadly satirical scene does not an eye-popping production make.

Baritone Dwayne Croft sings the role of the ghost of Walt Whitman. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

One of the show’s welcome devices was making a narrator out of the ghost of American poet Walt Whitman, who sets the scene for the drama. Whitman met Oscar Wilde during his 1882 American tour but had passed away by the time Wilde reached the height of his fame. This from-the-grave commentary intrigued. Whitman ellipses the time between the premiere of  Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and his prosecution for “gross indecency.” Again, a bit more of Wilde’s life as the toast of London would have made his fall from grace that more deeply felt.

Baritone Dwayne Croft was perfect in the role of Whitman, which required an immortal grace, and he was equal to the task in voice and presence.

Without equivocation, the writers drove home Wilde’s obsession with his young lover Bosie. Making Oscar Wilde’s young lover a non-speaking balletic role was an inspired device, lending the production a welcome elegance and beauty.

As Bosie, Reed Luplau, a dancer from Western Australia, made a stunning Opera Philadelphia debut. Seán Curran’s choreography fit Luplau like a kid glove as Luplau dipped and glided into Wilde’s reverie, evoking the Irish-born playwright’s tortured longing for a sheerly lovely young man, whose father, the Marquess of Queensbury, was committed to Wilde’s downfall. 

Australian dancer Reed Luplau as “Bosie” was the essence of sensual elegance. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

The roles of Ada Leverson and Frank Harris were expertly sung by soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden, a standout from last season’s Silent Night. Both performers valiantly endeavored to make their mark but were unfortunately burdened (pun wholly intended) by three very slow-moving scenes. While it is a time-honored operatic technique to comment on action that has occurred earlier, such as Frank’s infamous luncheon parties in the old days or Whitman’s devolution into poverty at his end, it’s not necessarily the most dramatically punchy technique.

Soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden sang the roles of Wilde’s loyal friends. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

So, the show overall is flawed, but Opera Philadelphia’s execution was just about flawless. One can’t underestimate the value of their partnership with The Sante Fe Opera on this endeavor. These co-productions turn out to be much greater than the sum of their resources. Ingenious sets; world-class performances; inspired direction, lighting, and costumes are just a few values that one can expect when companies cooperate rather than compete. A very capable Opera Philadelphia orchestra conducted by Evan Rogister in his Opera Philadelphia debut showcased the compelling musical voices Morrison has created to tell the story, without overwhelming the singers.

The privations of jail led to Wilde’s deteriorating health and early death. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia is taking on important work and more than a little risk with works like Oscar. They are informing and shaping the landscape of new American opera and will continue to do so with this season’s Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD and next season with another East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer.  And the entire opera firmament is better and stronger for their daring to reach beyond what is known and comfortable.

 

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Collaborative opera, contemporary opera, favorites, Interdisciplinary arts, Live opera performance, memoir, North American Opera, opera challenges, opera firsts, Reviews, Uncategorized

Opera Phila’s ‘Coffin’ a living dream

Operatoonity.com review: A Coffin in Egypt, an East Coast Premiere presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, June 8, 2014
The Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center
5.0 stars

five stars

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

A triumph. A tour de force. A masterpiece.

A Coffin in Egypt presented by Opera Philadelphia merits all of these accolades and more. This chamber opera is a five-star production that constitutes the very future of opera and demands to be seen. More than melodrama. More than one style of music. More than great score and greater singing. Both visual and vocal, humorous and tragic, vivid and visionary, A Coffin in Egypt is an original contemporary opera based on the masterful play by Horton Foote that must be experienced. Because it is an operatic experience.

Opera Philadelphia deserves a tremendous amount of credit for bringing the show to Philadelphia audiences. Of late, they have made the intimate Perelman Theater a showcase for some of the most important new works in opera: Dark Sisters, Powder Her Face, and now, A Coffin in Egypt.

This show is a gleaming amalgam comprising a great book by Leonard Foglia, who directed this production and the original Foote play; a hauntingly beautiful score by composer Ricky Ian Gordon; and a vehicle for a world-class talent, Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe.

As Myrtle Bledsoe, Frederica von Stade portrays a woman who has lived ninety years.

As Myrtle Bledsoe, Frederica von Stade portrays a woman who has lived ninety years.

In Coffin in Egypt, 90-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe, who has outlived her husband, her children, and other close relatives, looks back on her life, and relives all her hurts, regrets, and sorrows–coping with a philandering husband, losing her coveted looks, and settling for a secluded life on the lonely Texas prairie. Like many significantly old people, she repeats herself. Watching this opera is like putting a puzzle together. Pieces and themes introduced earlier drop in during remembered scenes in her life, which are played out for the audience.

This show was written as a vehicle for Frederica von Stade, and within moments of her first appearance on stage, it is apparent why. She creates a sensitive, soul-searing portrait of a nonagenarian who traded love and adulation for duty and permanence. And the audience is enraptured as von Stade splays open Myrtle’s soul, sharing why she feels cheated, betrayed, and full of remorse for the choices she made, when she might have been a great actress or someone’s treasured soul mate. While exiting the theater, another audience member commented on what a great actress von Stade was. She is better than great. She is a transcendent performer, with vocal gifts so pliant that she scales emotional heights and depths in song and words for which many reputable stage actors have only words.

And she is exquisitely directed by Foglia, who pushes her to the edge of melodrama, then shoves her off the cliff to obtain an authentic portrait of a flawed, Southern woman who keeps on living only to recount torturous memories.

One of the most evocative elements in the show are the gospel hymns sung by a quartet of “Negroes,” as Myrtle Bledsoe calls them, dressed in church attire, juxtaposed against Myrtle’s reflections.  The composer’s production notes explain that the show was to be a one-woman vehicle originally and that the gospel music was only going to be recorded and overlaid with sounds of the prairie. It was a stroke of genius to add the gospel-singing churchgoers singing live in the onstage production. The gospel tunes, idyllically harmonized by Veronica Chapman-Smith, Julie-Ann Green, Taiwan Norris, and Frank Mitchell, added a rich and highly original texture to the show. Their singing started out as sheerly beautiful music but evolved to become Myrtle’s tormenter as she recounted the story of her husband’s emotional abandonment when he fell for a mixed-race woman.

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All of the elements that should work in tandem in a production did just that. A symbolic yet powerful and often luminous set by Riccardo Hernandez, lighting by Brain Nason, and the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Timothy Myers were critical success factors in the artistic quality and production values this show offered.

There are two more performances of A Coffin in Egypt, on June 13 and 15. I implore you to go. Or die trying.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, contemporary opera, opera firsts, Regional opera, Reviews, Uncategorized

Voices carry Phila’s ‘Carmelites’

Dialogues of the Carmelites Opera Phila

Opertoonity.com ReviewDialogues of the Carmelites
Live Performance
March 9, 2014
Presented by Curtis Opera Theatre, in association with Opera Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents
The Perelman Theater, Philadelphia

3-stars-out-of-5

 

Voices carry, the saying goes. But can they carry an entire production?

Several of the young voices representing the Curtis Opera Theatre program tasked to sing The Dialogues of the Carmelites at Philadelphia’s famed Kimmel Center were nothing of short of extraordinary. But expecting them to carry a show when the staging and other production elements lacked cohesiveness was asking too much.

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Corrado Rovaris played Francis Poulenc’s capstone opera heroically. Alas, even supremely talented musicians couldn’t rescue a flawed show.

That’s because theater is part of opera. It’s even in the company’s name—Curtis Opera Theatre. If staging, lights, sets, and costumes aren’t as strong as the voices and the orchestra, the whole production suffers.  Theatrical elements shouldn’t supersede the voices (and we’ve all seen those operas), but they must inform and lift up the integrity of the whole work.

Carmelites Curtis Opera Theater

There aren’t many choral numbers in “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” but this hymn by the sisters was transcendent | photo by Cory Weaver

The selection of Carmelites as the next offering at the Perelman Theater held all the promise for a stunning production. It was the right size show for the space—a 650-seat venue with a modern affect. Curtis Opera Theatre had august partners in Opera Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents. However, the devil is certainly in the details for a nuanced masterwork like Carmelites. Critical artistic choices on which the success of the show hinged handicapped this production.

The show lacked artistic coherence. The stage was annoyingly dark most of the time. To open the show, there were three large avant garde looking set pieces layered on the stage, which left little room for natural movement. Despite the modern design introduced, the first costumes seen were completely in period. Between acts, the big trendy set pieces were removed, leaving only one by the end of the show. In the middle of Act II, folding tables like those used at a flea market were hauled out for the scene featuring all the nuns working and singing, and turquoise-colored fiberglass chairs were set out, like those you might see in a local junior high school classroom. In the middle of this act, French soldiers stormed the convent to terrorize the sisters, but the soldiers wore modern dress, wielding hand guns, looking like a street gang from a rough Philly neighborhood. Why this choice was made—to mash up 18th Century French Revolution with 21st Century Street Gang—was hardly evident to this reviewer.

By casually slipping into the modern period midway through the second act, many in the audience were robbed of the power of story at its core: during the Reign of Terror, the Catholic Church was denounced as an enemy of the Revolution. The Church’s properties were confiscated to fill Revolutionary coffers, and women and men religious were branded as traitors. This included an order of devout Carmelite nuns who refused to renounce their faith and are guillotined in a breathtaking scene at the end of the opera.  A modern opera set during a brutal and tumultuous period in history past hardly needs updating to remain meaningful.

As the show progressed, clerics came onstage dressed conventionally and came back wearing modern street clothes. It was also never clear that Blanche returned home to find it ransacked, which informed her decision to choose martyrdom. The final pivotal scene in the opera– the execution of the sisters–was even diminished by its staging. The sisters were executed onstage while facing the audience while customary staging of this scene leaves something more to the imagination, yielding significantly greater dramatic impact.

Rachel Sterrenberg

Rachel Sterrenberg as Blanche | photo by Cory Weaver

To sum up, director Jordan Fein  (and by association, all the other creatives on the bill) simply missed the mark with this one.

Absent an integrated artistic interpretation, the Curtis students left to bring off the show shone like the future stars they surely will be, very nearly succeeding. Tenor Roy Hage who sang the Chevalier for the closing performance was a magical talent on stage. As Chevalier, his stage time is limited, but his ovation at curtain call was not. In character, he has a luminescent quality about him. His lush lyric tenor enraptured the audience.

Also commendable was soprano Rachel Sterrenberg as Blanche, Chevalier’s sister, who grows up in privilege but abandons it for a life of servitude with the Carmelites. She began a little stiffly in the first act. Once she shed the cumbersome period panniers for a simple nun’s habit, she warmed to her role, becoming a powerhouse by Act III.  This was despite some illogical staging that was highly distracting to audience members-yes, a fifth wall was introduced.

Show-stealing honors must go to soprano Sarah Shafer as Sister Constance.  Shafer is a gifted actress, and her voice was ideally suited to the role of the novitiate with a lighthearted, readily excitable manner.

Sarah Shafer

Sarah Shafer as Sister Constance | photo by Cory Weaver

As Mme. de Croissy, mezzo Shir Rozzen needed a bed for her death scene but was denied that simple set piece which would have helped tame her character who could only bust out all over the stage singing her dying aria.

Did the careless direction detract from Poulenc’s masterful score? Unfortunately it did, which might be the single worst shortcoming of this production, that it lacked a proper showcase for a seminal work.

Kudos to all the performers and musicians–you tried valiantly to carry this production. But in a perfect opera world, you shouldn’t have to do all the heavy lifting.

by Gale Martin

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Collaborative opera, contemporary opera, Reviews, young artists programs

San Fran chamber opera offers contemporary double bill this weekend

OP-logo-siteHave you heard of Opera Parallèle? It is a young San Francisco company bringing high level performances of contemporary operas to the Bay Area (at great prices, nonetheless).

According to their website, Opera Parallèle is a professional, nonprofit organization that develops and performs contemporary chamber operas that are internationally acclaimed but rarely performed in the region.

In recent years, the company has expanded, even in a down-turned economy, receiving fabulous reviews such as this notice for their 2011 production of Philip Glass’s Opera, Orphée. The San Francisco Chronicle had this to say about Opera Parallèle:

“a San Francisco company devoted to contemporary chamber opera, scored a full-on triumph over the weekend…ravishing and delicate, haunting and playful, somber and romantic, the production fused story, music and stagecraft into an engrossing evening of music theater.”

Its upcoming double bill performance of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (see trailer below) and Barber’s A Hand of Bridge will be performed in San Francisco this weekend: April 26-28.

Here to introduce Operatoonity readers to the couple that runs the artistic direction of the company are Artistic Director Nicole Paiement and her husband, Concept Designer/Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel.

photo of Nicole Paiement

Artistic Director Nicole Paiement

Welcome to Operatoonity, Nicole and BrianHow intimate is your venue?  We generally perform at YBCA, which has approximately 700 seats. However, for our upcoming Bernstein/Barber production this weekend, we are excited to be at ZSpace, which only holds around 225. This will bring the audience that much closer to the stage and the performers. The intimate story of both “Trouble in Tahiti” and “A Hand of Bridge” make this the perfect venue.

What excites you about contemporary chamber opera?  The subject matters of most chamber opera will have more of an intimate and direct story line. I am a curious conductor who enjoys the challenges of mounting new works that are either rarely done or even have never been performed. I love the idea of bringing opera into the 21st century and helping redefine the form.

So many things excite us. First, because the orchestration is not as large, singers can sing with an even wider spectrum of colors, without worrying about being heard. You can truly hear pianissimo moments.

A smaller orchestra greatly widens the venue possibility – thus bringing opera to a variety of spaces and audiences to many more venues to see contemporary chamber opera.

photo of brian stauffenbiel

BRIAN STAUFENBIEL
Resident Stage Director, Production Designer

How did you two find each other and decide to found Opera Parallèle? (Okay, that might be two questions.)  I met Brian the first year I moved to California. He sang in some of my performances as a tenor. We quickly realized that we had a similar positive energy and artistic dreams.  I first founded Ensemble Parallèle – which was a broader organization. We focused on contemporary music and collaborative work.

After a few years, I realized that we needed to focus on one area and that contemporary opera was the most attractive form. It combines contemporary music with the narrative form, an important aspect in today’s film and television society and also has endless collaborative possibilities with other art forms.

How do you decide what productions to present? How long is that process, and what does it entail?  We are constantly working on repertoire and have a five year plan that keeps being revised as needed. Repertoire is a key element to a successful company. As we look at scores, we think of many things. Certainly, the quality of the piece is crucial. We also try to diversify our musical selection to enlarge our audience base. This is why we will have ranged from Berg to Glass; Harbison to Golijov.

We think of collaborative possibilities in an opera. With the Golijov this year, we were able to collaborate with the SF Girl’s chorus and Flamenco dancers including choreographer La Tania.

We consider the venue. Many works are venue specific.

We also try to balance between new works and masterworks. Wozzeck in the new chamber reorchestration brought back to life a great masterpiece of the 20th century. Same for Harbison (we commissioned that reorchestration). Golijov is a more recent work and our commission of Gesualdo, Prince of Madness, which will receive a workshop reading this June, brings new work in the repertoire.

We think of American versus works from other countries and try to present a variety of composers. Next year we will do a French opera and an English opera.

We try to bring “premieres” to the area, since SF is such a curious city. Once we identify works, we have some many things to consider before finalizing the choices. Cost is certainly an important one. Number of musicians needed in the pit since there are few venues with sizable pits.

a photo from Harbison's Great Gatsby

Opera Parallèle presented John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby in 2012 | Photo by Rapt

What is the difference between contemporary opera and modern opera?  I think everyone has their own definition of this and I am not sure of the answer.  Contemporary comes from the latin root tempor – tempus, meaning something “of our time”–thus opera of “our time.”

Modern can have the sense that it departs from a more traditional style. Not all contemporary operas are modern, if you think of it this way. There are “modern” operas that are not necessarily contemporary. Wozzeck is a good example.

For me, contemporary opera has a broader possibility of embracing a variety of styles.

Are those who worship classic opera disposed to appreciate the contemporary works produced by Opera Parallèle?  Definitely. Contemporary opera is in many ways a continuation of classic opera. It was not created in a vacuum. Our productions serve the music and the artform as a whole and I think any lover of the arts would enjoy our production.

How did you select “Trouble in Tahiti”? Does it exude the same kind of middle-class dysfunctional ennui as Revolutionary Road? There are definitely similarities between Yates’ novel and Bernstein’s opera. Both speak of the hopeless emptiness of their repetitive lifestyle in suburbia. However, in the opera, there is a feeling of redemption at the end that we certainly do not get in Yates’ book.

We were looking for an opera that would balance our opera in February, Golijov’s Ainadamar.  We wanted something American that would embrace a completely different style that would work well at Z Space.

How did you discover “A Hand of Bridge”? What made you pair it with “Trouble in Tahiti”?  In Barber’s opera, two couples play a hand of bridge, during which each character has a short aria in which he or she expresses their dissatisfaction with life. They are obviously also not happily married. We have cast one of the couple as being Dinah and Sam of “Trouble in Tahiti.” So in this way, Barber’s opera becomes the prologue to a Hand of Bridge – and the epilogue since we will repeat it in the lobby at the end of the evening. The 10 minute opera is brilliantly composed on a libretto by Menotti.  All these wonderful artists from the mid-1950’s come together in one program.

You can definitely hear that the work is a precursor to “West Side Story”? What is it about the score that creates that aha moment with the more familiar work?  When Dinah sings her first aria – “I was standing in a garden,” we hear the great lyricism that Bernstein will later write in West Side Story.  The “train” music when Sam leaves the house to get to his office,  we recognize the great syncopated rhythmic style of Bernstein – so unique and powerful.

As promised, here is the promo video for “Trouble in Tahiti”:

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, chamber opera, contemporary opera, Interviews, North American Opera, opera milestones, Q&A